Posts Tagged ‘DirecTV’

To DVR, Or Not To DVR?

Marist College just released a poll that shows almost 70 percent of Americans still watch their favorite television shows at the time they are broadcast, and only 16 percent record them to watch at a later date.

What’s more, it’s an ‘age’ thing. Close to 80 percent of TV viewers ages 45 and up still prefer so-called appointment television, choosing to watch a show when it is normally aired on terrestrial, cable, or satellite TV networks. But only 56 percent of viewers below 45 years of age do so.

The highest percentage of real-time TV viewers live in the Midwestern states (77%), while the lowest percentage (61%) reside in the West. Households with incomes of $50,000 or more are slightly less likely to watch in real time (64%) than households with incomes below $50,000 (70%).

Not surprisingly, 15% of those surveyed under age 45 were more likely to watch TV online using a computer, something only 3% of respondents over age 45 admitted to. DVR usage was highest among women under 45 and in households making $50K and up.

One of the more interesting parts of the survey showed that 9% of respondents living in the West do not watch any TV at all. That number contrasts with only 3% of Midwest residents who leave the boob tube shut down.

The poll of 1,005 people has a margin of error of ± 3%.

Redbox: A “Blu-race” to the bottom?

Don’t look now, but Blu-ray is coming to your local Acme. Or Walgreens.

Redbox, the “buck-a-night” DVD rental company, will soon be stocking Blu-ray movies at the end of the checkout counter. And you can rent ’em for $1.50 a night.

Redbox stated in a recent press release that it would initially offer Blu-ray discs in 13,300 of its kiosks, expanding across its entire network of 23,000 kiosks by the fall. Each Redbox kiosk holds 630 discs , or about 200 movie titles.

Redbox is on a roll financially, according to a story in Media and Entertainment Daily. The company’s revenue stream grew by almost 44% Y-Y for the second quarter. And they’re getting most of that revenue at the expense of traditional brick-and-mortar video rental stores (read: Blockbuster).

NCR, another player in the DVD kiosk business with the Blockbuster Express brand, hasn’t announced yet when they will be adding Blu-ray discs to their lineup.

At $1.50 per night, it really doesn’t make sense to buy a Blu-ray disc of any movie. The typical BD release is priced around $25 retail, or 16 times the Redbox rental cost. Not that there will be a huge demand for BD movies out of the gate – while the best estimates from The Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) have market penetration of Blu-ray players, Blu-ray drives in PCs, and Blu-ray equipped consoles (like PlayStation 3) at 19.4 million homes so far, there’s simply no reliable way to know how many of those PS3 consoles are being used to watch Blu-ray movies.

To put things in perspective, Netflix has over 14 million customers now. Comcast has slightly more, as does DirecTV. And any subscribers to those services can access video on demand (VOD) or streaming, if their TV and/or set-top box is so equipped. (PlayStation 3 is, and can even stream from Netflix!)

Given that some BD players are now available for less than $100, this could be an incentive for families to finally try out the BD format. Or maybe they will put that PS3 console to work to watch recent releases like The Bounty Hunter or The Book of Eli in full1080p HD…that is, if they have a HDTV screen large enough, and of the correct resolution.

Of course, if the BD movie title they want isn’t available, they’ll probably just rent the red laser version for a buck and be done with it. Redbox is a convenience service, based on a low-cost impulse purchase decision. If the movie is for a kid’s party or to keep the children otherwise entertained, it makes no difference whether it is a conventional DVD or a blue laser disc.

The question is how many videophiles will make use of the Redbox service. My theater at home is set up for HD, with a 92-inch Da-Lite projection screen and Mitsubishi HC6000 projector. So I’m definitely interested in $1.50 BD rentals!

The only problem is, I’ve been watching so many time-shifted TV shows on my 42-inch 1080p plasma in my family room (plus the occasional red laser DVD-by-mail) that the theater hasn’t been used much lately. Picture quality from an OPPO DV983 upscaling DVD player is so good that it isn’t worth bothering with Blu-ray playback on that plasma screen. I should know better, you might say…but I do, and you can’t see much of a difference between the two formats. At least, nothing to nit-pick about. That’s how good the OPPO scaler is.

In a nutshell, this move by Redbox promises to deliver additional revenue to studios, but probably not as much as they would have liked. No one in Hollywood is happy about the bottom falling out of the DVD rental market, but what other choice do they have?

The question is whether enough customers will prefer the improved quality of a BD movie over red laser DVDs and Netflix streaming to justify Redbox’ additional costs in stocking Blu-ray movies. If this doesn’t help the format take off, then nothing will.

FiOS is coming! (Yawn…)

They’re here!

The big orange spools of fiber optic jackets. The rows of white utility trucks. The polycarbonate junction boxes sitting every few feet along the curb. The spray-painted lines and alien glyphs all over my lawn, and my neighbor’s lawns.

Yes, FiOS has finally made it to our neighborhood. After nearly six years of waiting, Verizon has hired an army of subcontractors to run fiber optic cables under our lawns and breach the once-impenetrable Comcast wall.

This is FiOS! This is Big! (Well, the spools certainly are!)

Thing is, some of my neighbors are kinda blase about the whole thing. And I am, too.

Here’s why: Verizon first wired up nearby Doylestown Borough in 2003-2004, back when most people had separate telephone and cable TV hookups and broadband access was starting to pick up steam. Repeated calls to Verizon about the availability of FiOS in our township brought the same results – “We’re negotiating with your township over the franchise fees.” Seems that, unlike every other township around Doylestown, our supervisors insisted that Verizon pay the same franchise fees that Comcast had, back in the day.

This, even though Verizon had successfully negotiated discounted franchise deals with most other townships in central Bucks County.

Finally, after years of haggling, our supervisors reached an accommodation with Verizon, who had already announced they would not build out their national FiOS infrastructure any further, due to the high labor/materials costs and challenging ROI environment. Fortunately, we already had the required fiber optic ‘drops’ sitting in a Verizon service cabinet at the corner of our development from six years ago.

A few things have changed along the way since 2004. First off, Comcast’s broadband speeds have picked up considerably, and their service is quite reliable. Secondly, I, along with some of my neighbors, dropped Verizon landline telephone service and consolidated everything into the ‘triple play’ option (broadband, phone, and cable TV). And the quality of phone service is much, much better than what I had with Verizon. (Other neighbors opted to install DirecTV dishes and forego any kind of cable connection.)

I’ve also got a CableCARD-enabled TiVo HD that I use constantly to time-shift programs, and it works very well. Not only that, there are numerous ‘in the clear’ digital TV channels present on my system that can be accessed by conventional TV sets without extra set-top boxes.

I saved myself about $40 a month with the consolidation. And have gotten pretty used to the high level of service. So maybe it’s understandable that I’m not in any hurry to change over to a new provider, even if their Internet speeds are supposedly faster (something that was definitely true back in 2004, but maybe not now).

And it doesn’t help when a Verizon contractor shows up at my door, asking me if he can disconnect my cable TV wiring so he can trace the underground line back to the house. Hell, no! Not while I’m reviewing artwork for a client project!

The wires are definitely here…unless they’re somewhere else.

And that’s another thing to consider. When you call Comcast for a service problem (something I haven’t had to do in over a year), a Comcast-trained service person shows up in a Comcast truck.

When you call Verizon, you may get a Verizon tech. Or, you may get a subcontractor, particularly if you have wiring issues.  There are numerous ‘installation disaster’ stories of subcontractors puncturing gas lines and shorting out electrical lines while installing FiOS connections in the central Bucks County area. That alone gives me pause about the whole ‘switch to FiOS’ thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a particularly big fan of Comcast, who seems to raise their rates at the drop of a hat.  And I wonder what Comcast’s pending acquisition of NBC Universal will mean for future monthly rates and access to content.

The fact that I could switch to FiOS at any time may be useful to me to get a better rate from Comcast, or hold the line on future rate increases.

But to be honest, the service I get right right now is very good. And it’s reliable. And I can troubleshoot most of it myself with my own test equipment. And I know a lot of the service and engineering folks at Big C. So I guess I’ll stick with Comcast for a while longer, while those Verizon contractors continue to tear up everyone’s lawns and finish pulling fiber to all the houses in the ‘hood. Then we’ll see how it’s working out for any of my neighbors who decide to make the switch.

Maybe it’s simply a case of dealing with the devil you know, versus the one you don’t know?

Memo to 3D TV manufacturers: First, you build the highway. Then, you build the cars!

The latest PR blurb from CEA headquarters shows that, in a survey taken of 250 sales associates in retail stores, consumer enthusiasm for 3D is strong, with 50% of customers reporting a positive response to 3D technologies, and only 2% reporting a negative response.

That’s not necessarily good news. Do the math, and you’ll see that 47% of customers had no feelings about 3D TV one way or the other, or didn’t respond. (Or were distracted by their teenagers repeatedly begging Mom and Dad for an iPhone or iPod Touch.)

The CEA report does go on to say that “…While nearly 70 percent of sales associates feel well trained to answer questions about 3D, there is still consumer confusion. According to the retail associates interviewed, roughly half of consumers had some confusion about the technology.” That pretty much covers the 47% who didn’t respond positively or negatively.

And now for the devil in the details! “…For most retail associates, 3D content is pivotal. Nearly 80 percent of the associates interviewed believe sales of 3D technologies will not be strong until more 3D content is available.  Moreover, some of the most frequently asked questions by consumers revolved around the availability of 3D content. “

World Cup in 3D…Been there, done that. What else ya got?

There’s the rub. 3D may look great in the store, but how much 3D World Cup coverage can you watch before nodding off? (Hey, did you catch Paraguay and Japan fighting to a 0-0 tie?) And there are only a couple of 3D Blu-ray discs out there that haven’t been exclusively linked up to a 3D TV bundle promotion.

DirecTV is taking some steps to solve the problem today, announcing the launch of its 24-hour 3D channel in conjunction with Panasonic at a New York City press event. That’s good news for DirecTV customers, but it’s not much help to cable or Dish Network subscribers who are currently limited to ESPN 3D.

If this seems like déjà vu all over again (apologies to Yogi Berra), it is. Remember the start of the digital TV transition in 1998, when exactly two DTV stations went on the air? (For trivia buffs, they were WRAL (CBS) in Raleigh, NC, and WFAA (ABC) in Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX.)

Set-top boxes cost about two grand. You needed component inputs on your TV that could accept the 1080i signal from the box (good luck with the 720p outputs), plus an antenna, and maybe a preamp, and a bunch of coax, and a compass to tell you where to aim the antenna.

Oh, and yes – you needed HDTV content. But there was very little of it back then, aside from some CBS prime-time programs and the ABC Saturday Night Movie. It wasn’t until four years later (2002) before most of the TV networks were carrying a majority of their evening programs and sports coverage in HD. Can 3D TV manufacturers afford to wait that long?

It’s encouraging that 70% of the sales associates interviewed by CEA felt competent enough to answer questions about 3D. But that’s not the problem, based on my experience last Sunday at Best Buy. Only two out of four 3D TV demos in the store were actually working, and one was located in the worst possible spot for a demo. The other had only one pair of working 3D glasses. How do you answer questions about 3D, when customers can’t even see a demonstration of it?

This is where a company like Sony has a leg up with their Sony Style company stores. They can ensure (and they’d better!) that potential customers get the best possible 3D demo, with a large screen LCD TV and comfortable seats positioned at the correct viewing distance. And they can put together a nice mix of live 3D (Sony is a World Cup sponsor) and clips from Sony Pictures 3D movies (think Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).

Samsung’s ‘experience’ store in the Time-Warner Center in New York City is also an excellent place to demo 3D. (Hmmm. Maybe Samsung should be thinking about opening their own company stores!) Alas, Panasonic has no such showcase and is at the mercy of Best Buy and Sears. And Mitsubishi (who has some of the most compelling 3D TV value propositions right now) has no 3D showcases at all. (Too bad they can’t just truck their June NYC line show around the country!)

Now, THIS is how ALL 3D demos should look. (Dream on…)

But all the demos in the world won’t do any good if there is nothing to watch in 3D. And for the vast majority of potential 3D TV customers, there just isn’t enough to watch in 3D right now, so the credit cards and checkbooks are staying in pockets and purses.

Hopefully, that problem will sort itself out by year’s end, when we should see a flurry of 3D BD releases, more coverage of sporting events, the launch of Discovery’s 3D channel, and maybe even some 3D streaming from Netflix. (That last possibility assumes Netflix can get over some significant technical hurdles, such as bandwidth.)

Hint to TV manufacturers, and to Fox Sports: S-U-P-E-R B-O-W-L I-N 3-D. (Think that was subtle enough?)

So, we’re back to 1998. Grab some shovels and picks, and let’s get started on those highways! (Maybe there are still some stimulus funds available?)

HDTV Tech Talk Tutorial: 3D Program Formats

Here’s a quick tutorial on 3D program and transport formats, all coming to a TV near you.

Have you heard enough about 3D yet?

Probably not. Samsung and Panasonic are long out of the gate, while LG just started its advertising campaign for INFINIA LCD TVs during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.  And there will be more companies following with 3D TVs, Blu-ray players, and a host of accessories.

One question I’ve gotten repeatedly is this: “How do they pack a 3D signal into a conventional cable TV channel?” Another one: “How can DirecTV send out 3D, which is progressive scan? They’re not broadcasting in 1080p!”

Time to wheel out the whiteboard! In a nutshell, here’s how the different 3D transmission formats work.

THE DETAILS

Earlier this month, the 3D amendments for the HDMI 1.4 standard were released. These standards include a host of broadcast 3D formats, along with the Blu-ray top/bottom packed 1080p frame format. (I’ll touch on that, too.) These mandatory 3D formats must be supported if the HDMI interface is a ‘true’ 3D connection.

That’s not to say that a TV manufacturer won’t support other formats: They can, and they are! Examples of ‘other formats’ include checkerboard, interlaced 3D, line-by-line, and alternate frame. There are even 2D+ depth and other ‘overlay’ formats (think of the FM subcarrier for stereo from the 1950s) that are backwards-compatible with older TVs.

What we’re interested in is what DirecTV, Dish, Comcast, Cox, Discovery, and possibly major TV networks like CBS, NBC, and Fox are doing, and might do. Here’s the short list:

Side by side: This is the format that DirecTV will launch in June. It’s also likely to be used by Comcast, Dish, Cox, and any other multi-channel video system. In the side-by-side system, the left eye and right eye images are anamorphically squeezed to fit into a single 1920x1080i/30 frame. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. The side-by-side (2x 960×1080) 3D format. Image copyright ©2010 DirecTV. All rights reserved.

That means that each image has half the horizontal resolution, or 960×1080 pixels, when expanded back to its normal shape and presented sequentially. Does this look bad? Not really, considering there’s still over 1 million pixels in each eye. As it turns out, HDMI 1.4a calls for side-by-side exclusively with 1920x1080i video content.

Top + Bottom: This format is more likely to be used by stations transmitting progressive scan signals. Once again, the left and right eye images are anamorphically squeezed and packed into a single frame, except they are aligned one atop the other. This is the standard for 1280x720p/60 and 1920x1080p/24 transmissions. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. The top + bottom 3D transport format. Image copyright ©2010 DreamWorks Animation. All rights reserved.

In this case, each image has half the vertical resolution of a full HD video frame. For a 1080p program, that’s no big deal – each eye works out to 1920×540 pixels. But 720p comes up short, with an effective resolution of 1280×360 pixels in each eye.

The thinking here is that it’s better to sacrifice vertical resolution in a progressive scan TV system than horizontal resolution. I don’t think it makes much of a difference with 1080p content, but 720p? It may not look as good as it should.

What about the alternative? Using a side-by-side format, this would reduce the resolution of each left and right eye image to 640×720 pixels – not much more than a regular DVD. As a result, adopting 720p as an HD format may leave something to be desired with respect to 3D.

HDMI 1.4a: There are two formats here. One uses a top/bottom dual-frame structure (Figure 3) with a total of 1920×2205 pixels. (45 pixels are a blanking or metadata interval.) This retains full 1080p resolution and the frame rate is 24 (23.98) Hz. The other format is for video games, and oddly enough, it’s at a lower resolution – 1280×720 pixels, with either a 50Hz or 60 (59.94) Hz refresh. (Figure 3)

Figure 3. The HDMI 1.4 Blu-ray frame packing structure.

To summarize, these are the ‘mandatory’ HDMI 1.4a 3D formats. A compatible 3D TV will support all of them. On the other hand, set-top boxes and media players only have to provide one of these signals (for Blu-ray players, it’s the full 1080p top + bottom format exclusively), based on the content being served up.

It’s important to remember that, not matter what delivery (transport) format is used, the 3D TV will present ALL of these as sequential left eye/right eye images, using the same active shutter glasses. Only the physical resolution of the images will vary, along with frame rates.

And now you know the rest of the story…to quote the late, great Paul Harvey.